Heart Failure

Heart failure (HF), previously called congestive heart failure, is a serious condition most commonly caused by weak pumping of the heart muscle. Poor heart pumping function can cause fatigue, leg swelling, and difficulty breathing, particularly with exertion. Lifestyle changes, medication, pacemakers, defibrillators and even open heart surgery can be used to treat heart failure.

Heart failure is when the heart fails to pump enough blood to the organs in the body. As blood travels from the lungs to the heart, it may back up. If fluid stays in the lungs, breathing becomes difficult. The build up of fluid is the reason for the term "congestive heart failure." A heart that is "failing" has damaged or stretched muscle. The damage can impair the electrical system in the heart. If this happens, the heartbeat may be too fast, too slow, or unsteady. Heart rhythm problems are common in people with heart failure.

Symptoms & Signs

In the early stages, people with heart failure might not be aware of any symptoms. But as it progresses, one or more of the following symptoms may begin to appear:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) - A feeling of breathlessness, as if you can't get enough air, may come on during physical activity. In more advanced heart failure, shortness of breath occurs at rest or can awaken patients from sleep. Propping yourself up with extra pillows may help you breathe more easily at night.
  • Fatigue - Activities that did not feel strenuous to you before, such as walking or climbing stairs, may easily tire you out. You may even feel exhausted while resting, when you haven't been active at all.
  • Chronic coughing or wheezing - Fluid congestion (a buildup of fluid in the lungs) is common with heart failure, and is the reason why doctors often refer to it as "congestive heart failure" (CHF). This congestion can make you wheeze and cough. Some people cough up mucous or phlegm.
  • Fluid retention or swelling - Fluid also can build up in other parts of your body, such as your feet, ankles, legs, and abdomen. Swelling, or edema, is the most obvious sign of fluid buildup, but weight gain also may be a signal. This fluid buildup in the abdomen makes some people lose their appetite or feel nauseated.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat - Your weakened heart may try to beat faster to send more blood through your system, making you feel like your heart is racing. Or it may trigger an arrhythmia, which can cause palpitations, heart pounding, or other symptoms.
  • Confusion - The reduced blood flow to your brain may cause feelings of confusion, impaired thinking, or mental sluggishness.

Treatment

Treatment of heart failure is aimed towards living longer, reducing symptoms, and improving quality of life. Treatment options include the following:

  • Diet and lifestyle changes
  • Medications
  • Treatment of underlying causes, such as clogged arteries, heart valve disease, high blood pressure, and heart rhythm problems
  • Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) or other implantable cardiac devices
  • Surgery to repair structural damage
  • Heart transplantation

Risk Factors

While in some cases there is no apparent reason the heart would be weakened, some conditions can damage the heart and weaken the heart muscle. These conditions include:

  • Coronary artery disease, especially with a prior heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • A virus
  • An arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm)
  • Diabetes
  • Diseases of the heart muscle or valves

Keep Exploring

Heart Rhythm Disorders
Millions of people experience irregular or abnormal heartbeats, called arrhythmias, at some point in their lives. Most of the time, they are harmless and happen in healthy people free of heart disease. However, some abnormal heart rhythms can be serious or even deadly. Having other types of heart disease can also increase the risk of arrhythmias.
Pediatrics and Congenital Heart Disease (CHD)
This section is for pediatric patients and families living with heart rhythm disorders and heart rhythm disorders related to congenital heart disease (CHD).
Early Warning Signs
If you are experiencing a racing, pounding, rumbling or flopping feeling in your chest or if you have been fainting, having repeated dizzy spells, feeling lightheaded or you are extremely fatigued, it's time to see a doctor to discuss your heart health.
Common Treatments
Learning about the underlying cause of any heart rhythm disorder provides the basis for selecting the best treatment plan. Information and knowledge about care options, and their risks and benefits help you work with your health care provider to make the best choices.
Lifestyle
Since other heart disorders increase the risk of developing abnormal heart rhythms, lifestyle changes often are recommended. Living a “heart healthy” lifestyle can ease the symptoms experienced with heart rhythm disorders and other heart disorders, and can be beneficial to overall patient health.
The Normal Heart
The heart is a fist-sized muscle that pumps blood through the body 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without rest. The normal heart is made up of four parts: two atria on the top of the heart (right atrium and left atrium), and two ventricles (right ventricle and left ventricle) which are the muscular chambers on the bottom of the heart that provide the major power to pump blood.